Same as ever, challenge for Hawks is to get better on defense

The Hawks pushed the Celtics once Trae Young unlocked his game on offense. They lost the first-round Eastern Conference playoff series because they couldn’t stop Boston from scoring. The same thing has happened every time the Hawks have faced a true contender in the playoffs, except for the time Ben Simmons inexplicably stopped taking easy shots.

Lots of NBA teams can score. The league never has had so many skilled offensive players. Only a few teams can score and get enough stops to win a seven-game series against the best opponents. The Hawks won’t be one of them until they reshape their roster and shift their culture toward defense.

The roster piece of the puzzle will be tricky to solve. After signing several players to contract extensions, the Hawks will have to execute trades to make major changes. The guaranteed contracts for 2023-24 will push the payroll right up against the luxury-tax threshold. The Hawks almost certainly will be taxpayers, which would limit their flexibility to make trades.

It’s possible that Quin Snyder, hired as Hawks head coach in February, can help them become better on defense. Snyder’s Jazz teams were consistently good defensively. From 2015-16 through 2021-22 they ranked seventh, third, second, first, 13th, first and ninth per Cleaning the Glass (garbage time excluded).

But those Utah teams were built around Rudy Gobert’s elite interior defense. He covered for his teammates’ deficiencies. With the Hawks, Snyder has too many poor defenders on the outside and good, not great, rim protectors. It will take time and roster changes for Snyder to fashion the Hawks into a good defensive team, if that’s even possible.

His predecessors couldn’t do it. The Hawks were a bad defensive team with Lloyd Pierce as coach (in fairness, they were tanking still). The Hawks were briefly better at that end with Pierce’s successor, Nate McMillan, before regressing back to their norm. The Hawks remained a bad defensive team after they replaced McMillan with Snyder for the final 21 games of this season.

Snyder’s Hawks ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency during that stretch. The sample is small, but the results mirror what we’ve seen for years from the Hawks. Their defensive rankings over the past five full seasons: 27th, 27th, 21st, 26th and 21st.

The top-seeded Celtics eliminated the Hawks from the playoffs while pretty much getting whatever shots they wanted. According to NBA tracking data, Boston generated a higher rate of wide-open shots (no defender within six feet) and more points on drives than any other team in the first round. It’s impossible to win a series when an opponent gets so many easy shots both inside and outside.

The Hawks’ defense remained bad this season even though Young got better. He probably was the league’s worst defender over his first four seasons. This season, the defensive metrics ranked him somewhere closer to average for his position. Defensive impact is notoriously tricky to measure in basketball, but the eye test confirmed that Young was better, especially late in the season.

“It’s more about effort for me,” Young said after the season-ending loss to the Celtics. “I just gave more effort later in the year, and it really showed. When it gets close to that time, you’ve got to give more (effort). Just try to give more throughout the season.”

That would help. Still, Young’s size will always limit the Hawks’ defensive strategies. Snyder used more switching schemes late in his Utah tenure. That won’t work with Young. The Hawks need to combine Young’s improved defensive effort with better defenders around him.

De’Andre Hunter was supposed to be part of that plan. But he hasn’t become the lock-down defender on the wing that the Hawks envisioned when they traded two first-round picks to acquire him in the 2019 draft. Hunter should be a trade candidate for the Hawks , though it will be harder to move him after he signed a contract extension before this season.

The Hawks acquired a good wing defender, Saddiq Bey, at the deadline in February. He’s under contract next season. I still believe Bogdan Bogdanovic is a solid perimeter defender when healthy, and that’s good enough considering his offensive impact. Dejounte Murray’s defense was a bit disappointing in his first season with the Hawks but the potential to be better is there.

In the frontcourt, Hawks center Clint Capela’s ability to protect the rim seems to depend on how his legs are feeling. He’s another potential trade piece, especially with backup Onyeka Okongwu’s improvement. John Collins is a good, versatile defender but his offensive regression made him a liability. The Hawks unsuccessfully tried trading him this season and probably will keep trying.

An encouraging sign for the Hawks is that they got much better offensively when Snyder replaced McMillan. That trend continued in the playoffs against the Celtics, a great defensive team. Young wasn’t the only one giving them problems. Bogdanovic, Murray, Hunter and Collins were also productive and efficient.

But defense still matters even in the NBA’s dribble, pass, and shoot era. The Celtics are finding that out after eliminating the Hawks. Boston has scored plenty against the 76ers in the East semifinals. The Celtics were facing elimination at Philadelphia Thursday night because the Sixers sliced through their defense for three victories, including one without league MVP Joel Embiid.

The Hawks won’t conquer teams of that caliber in the playoffs until they can consistently get more stops.

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